100 years ago, on 5th September 1915, a small group of international socialists gathered in the tiny Swiss village of Zimmerwald. This was the first attempt to unite those socialists – such as Lenin and Luxemburg – who were opposed to the War, and was the embryo of the Communist International. Alan Woods explains the historical significance of Zimmerwald.
100 years ago, on 5th September 1915, a small group of international socialists gathered in the tiny Swiss village of Zimmerwald. This was the first attempt to unite those socialists who were opposed to the War.
The First World War
The outbreak of War in August 1914 represented a fundamental turning point in the history of the world and that of the international workers’ movement. Europe was being torn asunder by a terrible bloodbath for which the leaders of the Socialist International bore a direct responsibility. It is difficult to imagine today the trauma caused by the decision of the leaders of the parties of the Socialist International to support “their” bourgeoisie. It fell like a thunderbolt on the working class.
The position of the leaders of the Second International towards the First World War signified the de facto collapse of the International. From that moment onwards the war question concentrated the attention of socialists in all countries. This was the biggest betrayal in the history of the world workers’ movement, profoundly shocking and disorienting the ranks of the International.
When Lenin read in Vorwärts (“Forward”), the official organ of the German Social Democracy, that the SDP members of the Reichstag had voted for the war credits, at first he refused to believe it, claiming that it must be a forgery put out by the German general staff to discredit the Social Democracy. (Trotsky’s reaction was identical). How could this happen when in international congress after congress they had voted unanimously to oppose imperialist war and to utilise all methods to overthrow capitalism? However, once Lenin realised that it was true, he did not hesitate. He demanded a complete break with the Social Chauvinists.
At that time Lenin saw the biggest danger not so much in the Social Democratic right wing whose betrayal was clear and palpable, but in the “centrists” like Kautsky who concealed their opportunism behind sly ambiguity and pacifist phrases. He was struggling to convince the small numbers of internationalists of the impossibility of any rapprochement with the Social Democratic leaders who had backed the War. For this reason Lenin adopted an implacable stand and a very sharp tone, which offended the sensibilities of some people. To those who complained about this Lenin merely shrugged his shoulders. He was always more concerned about theoretical clarity and principles than on stepping on other people’s toes.
Not for a moment did Lenin abandon the idea of recreating a genuine revolutionary international. But he was radically opposed to any suggestion of recreating the old Social Democratic (Second) International, which Rosa Luxemburg correctly described as a stinking corpse. Already at this time the idea of a new International was forming in Lenin’s mind. But he was well aware that this could not simply be proclaimed. It had to be built through a struggle against the social chauvinists and the crystallisation of a revolutionary-internationalist tendency.
The fact is that Lenin found himself isolated at the beginning of the War. He therefore made every effort to contact left-wing tendencies in the Social Democratic parties of other nations. He followed the internal life of all the Socialist Parties very closely, scouring the foreign socialist press eagerly, enthusiastically welcoming every attack on social chauvinism. All Bolsheviks living abroad were asked to set up local “internationalist clubs”. Those who knew the language of the country were instructed to participate in the labour movement of that country, especially the Socialist Parties.
The truth is that very few people succeeded in keeping their bearings at this time. Lenin in Russia and Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany, the leaders of the Serbian Social Democrats, James Connolly in Ireland and John Maclean in Scotland were exceptions to the rule. Trotsky had adopted a clear revolutionary position against the war, as expressed in his book The War and the International.
Exiled in Paris, Trotsky published a Russian journal, Nashe Slovo, that defended the principles of revolutionary internationalism. With only a handful of collaborators and even less money, but with enormous sacrifices they managed to publish the journal on a daily basis, a unique achievement, unequalled by any other tendency in the Russian movement, including the Bolsheviks at the time. Trotsky recalls in My Life that the role of Nashe Slovo was recognized at the Zimmerwald Conference:
“The French delegates noted in their report the value of the Nashe Slovo in establishing a contact of ideas with the international movement in other countries. Rakovsky pointed out that the Nashe Slovo had played an important part in setting forth the development of the international position of the Balkan Social Democratic parties. The Italian party was acquainted with the Nashe Slovo, thanks to the many translations by Balabanova. The German press, including the government papers, quoted the Nashe Slovo oftenest of all; just as Renaudel tried to lean on Liebknecht, so Scheidemann was not averse to listing us as his allies.”
Preparations for Zimmerwald
The first attempts at an international meeting took place in the autumn of 1914 in Lugano (Switzerland). The Italian and Swiss Social Democrats passed anti-war resolutions, but then spoiled everything by appealing to the IS Bureau (the leadership of the old International) to “hold a meeting as soon as possible to discuss international affairs”. Since the “socialist” leaders of the belligerent states were acting as conscious agents of the ruling class, the Bolsheviks, who defended Lenin’s theses on war, were naturally implacably opposed to this. The Lugano affair, which was tinged with pacifism ended in failure.
The first partial success was with the left wing of the Social Democratic women’s organizations. On behalf of the Bolshevik women’s newspaper Rabotnitsa, Inessa Armand and Alexandra Kollontai wrote to the German Social Democrat Klara Zetkin with a proposal to organize an international conference of left-wing socialist women. The conference was held in Berne, Switzerland in March 1915. Attendance was small (29 delegates from Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Holland, Poland and Russia) and was held in secret, partly due to the fact that the German Social Democratic leaders had prohibited attendance at the meeting.
The results were not great. The resolution that was passed did not go beyond a general pacifist-type condemnation of the war. The Bolshevik delegates proposed an alternative resolution, which said: “The woman worker will achieve her aim […] only through a revolutionary mass movement and a strengthening and sharpening of the socialist struggle.” This only received the votes of the Russian and Polish delegates. But despite its confused and pacifist nature, the conference’s manifesto helped to galvanise the resistance of women to the War. It was distributed illegally in large numbers – 200,000 in Germany alone.
One month later a conference of Socialist Youth was held in Berne. The initiative for an international youth conference came from the Swiss Young Socialists in collaboration with the Italian Socialist Youth and the Socialist Youth of the Stuttgart region of Germany. Before the War the Youth of the Second International had played a key role in the struggle against imperialism and militarism. But the Berne Conference displayed the same confusion that we saw in the women’s conference. Once again the Bolshevik delegates moved a resolution advocating a revolutionary alternative to the imperialist War and once again they found themselves isolated.
The Scandinavian delegates moved a pacifist resolution, advocating disarmament (in the middle of a war!), which was passed by nineteen votes to three. The three who voted against were once again the Russians and the Poles. Only on the experience of great events, and especially the October Revolution, did the revolutionary policy of Bolshevism finally triumph. Eventually, in 1918 the Socialist Youth International went over to the side of Communism and joined the Third International.
The need for an international gathering of those who opposed the war became increasingly obvious. The Italian and Swiss parties, in whose ranks there was a strong anti-war mood, were best placed to organise this. The leaders of this initiative (Grimm and Balabanova) were centrists. They called a conference in Berne in July 1915. Significantly, however, they did not invite a single one of the real left groups, but they did invite the “centrist” leaders: Hugo Haase, Karl Branting and Peter Troelstra, against the Bolsheviks’ protests. Needless to say, Grimm was opposed to the setting up a new International.
A preliminary organizing conference was held in Berne on 11 July 1915. Already at this meeting differences arose as to who would be invited to the Conference. The Bolsheviks proposed that it should be limited to those who stood on a clear and unambiguous anti-imperialist and anti-opportunist policy, but others wanted a “broad” meeting including all kinds of pacifist and centrist elements. The result was an uneasy compromise.
The Conference begins
The choice of venue was not without a certain irony. From every side came the deafening roar of cannon and the stutter of machine guns. But in the Swiss Alps there was perfect peace and tranquillity. The World War might just as well have been on another planet. In the sleepy small town of Zimmerwald everyday life pursued its usual course as it had done for generations.
This was the scene when, on 5 September 1915, a party of what were supposed to be ornithologists from all over the world set off from Berne in four horse-drawn carriages. They crossed the picturesque meadows of Längenberg to arrive in Zimmerwald in the evening. Due to the lack of beds in the Hotel Beau Séjour, some of the “ornithologists” had to be put up in the houses of the vet and the village postman.
The inhabitants of this sleepy Swiss village were highly indignant when they later discovered that the thirty-odd “bird-watchers” were in fact leading international socialists from twelve different countries who had responded to an invitation by the Swiss social democrat Robert Grimm to discuss how Europe’s working class should react to the imperialist War. What these respectable Swiss burghers had to say about this outrage has unfortunately found no place in the history books, although it was probably of a fairly colourful nature. But what has become known as the Zimmerwald Conference must be seen as an important turning-point in history.
The very fact that they had come this far was already a great achievement. However, the composition of the meeting in Zimmerwald was, as we have indicated, rather heterogeneous. Zinoviev claimed, without doubt correctly, that the intention of Robert Grimm was to organise an international meeting, not of the Left but of the “Centre”. That was something that Lenin was prepared to fight against with all his might. Lenin’s aim was above all to rally the genuine Lefts and to bring about a radical break with the opportunists of the Second International.
There was enthusiasm about the Conference, which was logical after the long period in which the anti-war socialists had been working in isolation under the most difficult conditions. Upon arrival, when he looked around the room and saw the small number in attendance, Lenin made a joke. He said: “You can put all the internationalists in the world into four stage-coaches.” But Lenin was anxious that the conference should settle the fundamental issues, and that there should be no papering over the cracks.
Lenin arrived early at the sleepy little Swiss village to hold long discussions with other delegates. For months he had been preparing for the conference, drafting documents with an unambiguous and uncompromising character. He amended the original manifesto which was too academic and not sufficiently militant for his liking. Even so, the majority of the delegates were far from consistent, and tended towards centrism.
At Zimmerwald, Lenin organised the “Zimmerwald Left”. This was a minority within a minority (eight out of 38). The problem was not merely that the Left was isolated internationally. It was that even in Zimmerwald, the genuinely revolutionary Left was also in a minority. And at times Lenin found himself in a minority within the Left itself.
The conference began by reading declarations from people and organizations who could not be present. Delegates from the British Independent Labour Party and the British Socialist Party were prevented from attending because they were refused passports, but sent letters expressing their sympathies with the aims of the conference. Likewise the French revolutionaries Alfred Rosmer and Pierre Monatte were prevented from attending by the French government.
Without doubt the most important was a letter from the German Social Democrat Karl Liebknecht who was serving a prison sentence in Germany for his opposition to the War and whose name could not even be printed in the official report of the conference. Trotsky recalls:
“Liebknecht himself was not in Zimmerwald; he had been imprisoned in the Hohenzollern army before he became a captive in prison. Liebknecht sent a letter to the conference which proclaimed his abrupt about-face from pacifism to revolution. His name was mentioned on many occasions at the conference. It was already a watchword in the struggle that was rending world-socialism.”
Karl Liebknecht letter was read out at the conference—an emotional moment in the proceedings: “I am a prisoner of militarism. I am in chains. Therefore I cannot address you, but my heart and my thoughts, all my being is with you.” In his message Liebknecht advocated:
“An inexorable settling of accounts with the deserters and turncoats of the International in Germany, Britain, France, and elsewhere.
“Mutual understanding, encouragement, and a stimulus for those who are true to their banner and determined not to cede an inch to international imperialism, even if they are cut down. And Ordnung (order) in the ranks of those who are determined to hold on, stand firm, and struggle, with their feet firmly planted on the foundations of international socialism.”
He also demanded: “Not civil peace but civil war! […] International solidarity of the proletariat above and against pseudo-national and pseudo-patriotic harmony among classes. International class struggle above and against the war among states. International class struggle for peace, for socialist revolution.”
After that the delegates reported on the situations in their countries.
The French delegate Merrheim reported that in France the workers were said to be “in a state of disillusionment” and “demoralised:
“In France we are confronted with a completely demoralized working class, which at the present moment has lost all faith. They will listen to us if we speak of peace, but not if we repeat the old clichés.” This pessimistic appraisal reflects something we have seen only too often: a tendency of the Lefts to blame the working class and the alleged “backwardness” of the masses for everything. Trotsky interrupted the speaker: “Monatte and Rosmer think otherwise.”
The Balkan Socialists Christian Rakovsky and Bulgarian Kolarov gave a detailed account of their party’s resistance to the Second Balkan War. Kolarov also spoke about the split between the Tesnyaki or “Narrow” socialists and the opportunists in the Bulgarian Social Democracy. A Balkan Socialist Federation had been formed by Social Democratic Parties, which excluded the opportunists.
The Italians reported on the persecution of socialists since Italy’s entry into the War. This was accompanied with strikes and street demonstrations of the Italian workers. Henriette Roland Holst reported on the factional activity within the Dutch movement and Victor Chernov made the report on behalf of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party. Pavel Axelrod gave the report for the Mensheviks, playing down his party’s ambiguous stance on the War.
The Zimmerwald Conference was inevitably the scene of a sharp ideological conflict. The first document produced by the conference was a joint declaration by the French and German delegations. This statement, signed by Ledebour and Hoffman for Germany and Merrheim and Bouderon for France, declared that World War I was not their war, that it was caused by the imperialist and colonial policy of all governments. It advocated the restoration of Belgium and a peace without annexations or “economic incorporation” based on the self-determination of the people involved. The document advocated the ending of the policy of civil peace and a renewal of the class struggle in order to force their governments to end the war.
The sentiments expressed by Liebknecht were not the same as those expressed by Georg Lebedour, the representative of the Kautskyite “Centre”, who was the main leader of the Right at Zimmerwald. His attempt to make excuses for the German Social Democracy provoked indignant protests that interrupted him. His reply to the protests is worth quoting:
“It was not possible for the minority to speak out in the Reichstag unless we established a new fraction, and we avoided that in order not to split the party. In wartime it is especially necessary to hold together so that we do not lose influence over the masses.”
In these few words we have the essence of all left reformism and centrism. The right-wing Social Democrats cling to the bourgeoisie and the imperialists and slavishly do their dirty work; the “Lefts” cling to the right wing and slavishly subordinate themselves to it in the name of “unity”, and thus preserve the influence over the masses – of the right wing and the bourgeoisie.
Answering Lebedour, Berta Thalheimer of the Spartakists said: “Comrade Lebedour has not spoken here for the whole opposition. There is also a minority within the minority, grouped around Liebknecht. It supports his stance of placing principles above party discipline.”
Trotsky was very close to the Left politically, but still chose to remain independent. Even within the Left, however, there were differences. Within the left caucus Lenin’s draft was rejected in favour of one by Radek. This resolution was then presented to the conference for referral to a drafting commission, but was rejected by a vote of 19–12. Trotsky voted in favour of the resolution. Grimm commented, not without some grounds, that Lenin’s draft resolution “to the workers of Europe” was directed more to party members than the masses.
Lebedour did everything possible to water down the contents of the final statement. The German delegates insisted that parliamentary demands, such as voting against war credits and withdrawal from ministries, be excluded from the text, while Lenin and the Left added their reservations that the manifesto did not repudiate opportunism or advance a clear method of struggling against the war. The delegates of the Zimmerwald Left draft resolution, together with Roland-Holst and Trotsky tried to insert an amendment stating that the mention of war credits had to be removed from the manifesto and that Ledebour’s statement that the “manifesto contains all that is implied [in such a] proposal”. Ledebour protested that he would not sign the manifesto if that was included. As a result the amendment was withdrawn. In the end Trotsky was put in charge of drafting the Manifesto, which was adopted by all the delegates, in spite of the differences between them.
Despite reservations, Lenin and the Left signed the Zimmerwald Manifesto. Lenin’s attitude was summed up by the title of his article The First Step, where he writes: “In practice, the manifesto signifies a step towards an ideological and practical break with opportunism and social-chauvinism. At the same time, the manifesto, as any analysis will show, contains inconsistencies, and does not say everything that should be said.”
In other words, he criticises the manifesto, not for what it says, but for what it does not say. The main thing was to develop the Zimmerwald Left as an independent current. Even so, many of the “Lefts” also immediately began to vacillate. Lenin in particular had trouble with Roland-Holst and Radek over the line of the official journal of the left, Vorbote (Herald), published in Holland with Pannekoek’s assistance.
In his autobiography Trotsky wrote:
“The days of the conference, September 5 to 8, were stormy ones. The revolutionary wing, led by Lenin, and the pacifist wing, which comprised the majority of the delegates, agreed with difficulty on a common manifesto of which I had prepared the draft. The manifesto was far from saying all that it should have said, but, even so, it was a long step forward. Lenin was on the extreme left at the conference. In many questions he was in a minority of one, even within the Zimmerwald left wing, to which I did not formally belong, although I was close to it on all-important questions. In Zimmerwald, Lenin was tightening up the spring of the future international action. In a Swiss mountain village, he was laying the corner-stone of the revolutionary International.
“The conference put a strict ban on all reports of its proceedings written from Zimmerwald, so that news could not reach the press prematurely and create difficulties for the returning delegates when they were crossing the frontier. A few days later, however, the hitherto unknown name of Zimmerwald was echoed throughout the world. This had a staggering effect on the hotel proprietor; the valiant Swiss told Grimm that he looked for a great increase in the value of his property and accordingly was ready to subscribe a certain sum to the funds of the Third International. I suspect, however, that he soon changed his mind.” (My Life)
The Conference set up an International Socialist Commission with a mandate to establish a temporary Secretariat in Berne that would act as an intermediary of the affiliated groups and begin to publish a Bulletin containing the manifesto and proceedings of the conference. But it was mainly composed of Centrists like Grimm and Balabanova and achieved very little.
Yet despite all its shortcomings, the Zimmerwald Conference marked a step forward for international socialism. One has to bear in mind the terrible isolation of the proletarian vanguard in those years when, to quote Lenin again, all the internationalists could fit into four stage coaches. Later, looking back on these events and summing up their significance, Trotsky was to write:
“During the war there was a silence as of death among the workers. The Zimmerwald conference was a conference of very confused elements in its majority. In the deep recesses of the masses, in the trenches and so on there was a new mood, but it was so deep and terrorized that we could not reach it and give it an expression. That is why the movement seemed to itself to be very poor and even this element that met in Zimmerwald, in its majority, moved to the right in the next year, in the next month. I will not liberate them from their personal responsibility, but still the general explanation is that the movement had to swim against the current.” (Trotsky, Fighting against the stream, 1939)
After the conference, the work of uniting the internationalist revolutionary vanguard continued. It remained an uphill struggle. Under these conditions Zimmerwald undoubtedly provided a ray of hope, as Trotsky explains in My Life:
“The conference at Zimmerwald gave to the development of the anti-war movement in many countries a powerful impetus. In Germany, the Spartacists expanded their activities. In France a “Committee for the Restoration of International Connections” was established. The labour section of the Russian colony in Paris tightened its ranks about the Nashe Slovo, giving it the support needed to keep it afloat through constant financial and other difficulties. Martov, who had taken an active part in the work of the Nashe Slovo in the first period, now drew away from it. The essentially unimportant differences that still separated me from Lenin at Zimmerwald dwindled into nothing during the next few months.”
But the French authorities were increasingly concerned about Trotsky’s activities. For two and a half years, under the watchful eye of the censor, Nashe Slovo led a precarious existence until the French authorities, under pressure from the Russian government, closed down the journal. Soon after Zimmerwald, during a mutiny in the Russian fleet at Toulon, copies of Trotsky’s paper were found in the possession of some of the sailors, and using this as an excuse, the French authorities deported Trotsky at the end of 1916.
After a short period spent in Spain, where Trotsky got to know the inside of Spanish prisons, he was again deported to New York, where he collaborated with Bukharin and other Russian revolutionaries in the publication of the paper Novy Mir, which published articles that were virtually indistinguishable from Lenin’s line.
Divisions in the Zimmerwald camp
The tensions were, however, growing between the right and left of the Zimmerwald movement—a heterogeneous creature at best. Lenin was prepared for a temporary coexistence with the centrists, starting from a weak initial base. But it could not last. A de facto international split, which only Lenin really understood, already existed. Under conditions of war and revolution all half way currents are doomed to disappear. Lenin simply helped them on their way, insisting on clarification. Ambiguity is intolerable in critical moments of history when there is a pressing need to choose.
The objective situation was pushing the masses to the left, to the road of revolution. The centrist Zimmerwald current was dragging its feet. There were only two ways to go: either go the whole way, breaking decisively with reformism and passing over to an open revolutionary position, or to go back to the swamp of reformism. Lenin, by word and deed, made this abundantly clear. For that the centrists hated him, as at every moment in history a muddlehead always hates a man with clear ideas.
Robert Grimm was the first to move to the right. By the summer of 1916, he had gone over. Lenin was merciless in his criticism of the centrists who were revolutionary in phrases, but bourgeois-reformists in deeds. This was exactly what Lenin detested. Turati, Merrheim, Bourderon and the other Centrists sooner or later went the same way. In the end nothing was left of Zimmerwald, except the memory—and the Left!
Lenin continued his fight for a new International. But he had only a small handful of supporters and to tell the truth, was often in a minority within his own faction during the war. Prominent Bolsheviks like Bukharin, Radek and Pyatakov, for instance, had fundamental disagreements with him, especially on the important question of Self-determination. In the context of a war-torn Europe divided by barbed wire and with newspapers and correspondence subject to the steely gaze of the military censors, contacts with Russia were difficult in the extreme.
Zimmerwald’s message, despite its incompleteness, was beginning to get across. Workers in the main are not accustomed to read the “small print” of political documents, but seize upon what they perceive to be the central message and fill it with their own content. Thanks to his participation in Zimmerwald Lenin’s writings on war and the International became more widely known in different languages. The Zimmerwald Left gained important points of support for the future Third International.
In his memoirs, Shlyapnikov explains how the news of the Zimmerwald Conference gradually reached the workers in Russia and had a very positive effect in encouraging particularly those groups that were not directly affiliated to the Bolsheviks. “As it later turned out,” he writes, “all these cells were to become adherents of the Zimmerwald resolutions. We should note that these grouplets were not interlinked and did not even know of the existence of the others similar to themselves.”
This reaction was not confined to Russia. There were now the beginnings of ferment in the mass parties of the Second International. Germany itself was now moving towards a pre-revolutionary situation. Early in 1916, Otto Rühle, a Reichstag deputy, called publicly for a break with the social chauvinists. Independently, the German Lefts were coming to see the need for a new International. A series of public “Letters” originating from the German Left signed “Spartacus”, was closely followed by Lenin. The Socialist Youth founded by Karl Liebknecht was the main base of the left.
Things were beginning to move in Austria too. In the autumn of 1916 there was the formation of a left wing in the Austrian Socialist Party (SPÖ) based on the youth. Anti-war agitation was conducted from the “Karl Marx Club” in Vienna. In France, a left group of MPs was formed and received letters of support from the trenches. In Britain, Hyndman’s chauvinist group was forced out of the BSP at the Salford Conference in April.
In Italy, Serrati “the most left” of the leaders was still linked to the Centrists, while Gramsci, still a youth, supported Lenin’s ideas. The Swiss Socialist Party rejected the Zimmerwald position as “too radical” but a big sector of the rank-and-file supported it. In Bulgaria, the Tesnyaki (“narrow” socialists) already had a revolutionary anti-war position. Revolutionary or quasi-revolutionary currents were beginning to crystallise within the existing mass organisations everywhere.
From imperialist war to socialist revolution
The road to revolution was long and hard then as it is now. History knows no short cuts, nor are there any magical formulas that can make our work any quicker or easier. Lenin spoke many times of the need for revolutionary patience. The difficulties we face today are insignificant compared to the terrible problems that confronted Lenin and Trotsky during the First World War. In a world where the workers were shooting and bayoneting each other to defend the interests of their respective ruling classes, the slogan Workers of the World Unite must have sounded like a grim irony. The cause of international socialism seemed to be dead and buried under a mountain of corpses. The prospect of socialist revolution seemed like an impossible Utopia, a futile dream.
It must have seemed that the nightmare of reaction would never end. And yet, beneath the surface a new spirit was gradually being born. In the muck and blood of the trenches, men’s minds were stirring. In the bread queues undernourished women began to complain about the war and the rich parasites that were growing fat at the cost of their children. In the factories and fields the workers and peasants were beginning to move – at first slowly and hesitatingly, then with ever greater boldness and determination. The symptoms of a growing revolutionary crisis were unmistakable.
There was anecdotal evidence of a change. An angry crowd in Germany booed the right-wing Socialist leader Scheidemann. In Glasgow the working class women organized a rent strike with the support of the workers that had revolutionary overtones. In several countries there were demonstrations against the high cost of living. Above all, the increasing social ferment in all the belligerent powers was expressed in a sharp upsurge of strikes:
In practical terms the actual achievements of that small conference in September 1915 were meagre. Its significance was more symbolic than real. The most important aspect was not the conference itself (the “Zimmerwald Movement”, which contained contradictory elements, soon fizzled out and ended in nothing).
The Zimmerwald Left itself could not have an independent significance except as a stepping stone to the new International. But this had to be built on the basis of great events which were only a few months away. By going through the experience of Zimmerwald, Lenin had gained invaluable experience and a wide range of contacts in different countries. This was a necessary stage on the journey towards October. But such a perspective seemed very far off at the time.
The most important thing was Lenin’s struggle to separate the genuine revolutionary internationalists from the general mishmash of left reformism and centrism, for genuine revolutionary Marxism, for the Third International. To many people it seems that Lenin was too harsh in his tone, too stubborn, too unyielding, in a word too “sectarian”. But as Trotsky later wrote: “Coming from opportunists, the accusation of sectarianism is most often a compliment.” It was precisely that uncompromising hardness that enabled Lenin, together with Trotsky, to lead the Bolshevik Party to victory.
Lenin was a very optimistic person. Yet even he was not immune from moods of depression. At times he was tormented by the thought that he might not live to see the revolution. Written on Christmas day 1916, he wrote a letter to Inessa Armand giving voice to his innermost misgivings: “The revolutionary movement grows extremely slowly and with difficulty.” And added in a tone of resignation: “This must be put up with.” In a speech to the Swiss young socialists delivered in January 1917, Lenin said: “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.” One month later, the tsar was overthrown. In less than a year, the Bolsheviks had come to power in Russia.
To many people today the October Revolution may appear as something inevitable, almost preordained by Fate. But it was no such thing. The triumph of Bolshevism was not achieved quickly or easily. Before the Bolsheviks could conquer power, they first had to conquer the masses. And before they could conquer the masses, they first had to consolidate the revolutionary vanguard. This entailed a remorseless struggle to purge the movement of reformist and pacifist illusions, combat left reformist confusion and centrist vacillations and hammer out a genuinely revolutionary and internationalist policy. The Zimmerwald Conference represented an important stage in this struggle.
The meaning of Zimmerwald today
A century later, what conclusions should we draw from Zimmerwald? Only this: that the crisis of capitalism always produces its opposite. Out of the most reactionary situations can come new and unprecedented revolutionary explosions. And these can occur when they are least expected. The tiny forces that assembled in Zimmerwald could fill four stagecoaches. The forces of Marxism on a world scale today are relatively small but far more numerous than that. Moreover, the forces of genuine Marxism in 1915 were almost completely cut off from the working class. In every sense of the word they were fighting against the stream.
The real meaning of Zimmerwald today is that always, under all circumstances, it is our duty to continue the struggle for socialist revolution, to fight for the ideas of Marxism and to educate the cadres. Today it is possible to argue that the movement has been thrown right back. Lenin’s Communist International was destroyed by Stalin and is now only a distant, half-forgotten memory. The October Revolution itself was undermined by the bureaucratic regime of Stalinism that seized power after Lenin’s death and created a monstrous caricature of socialism, which dragged the Soviet Union down into the abyss. The fall of the USSR was presented as the end of Communism, the end of Socialism and even the End of History.
But history cannot be disposed of so easily. Twenty five years after the collapse of Stalinism, we are facing a far greater historical turning point. The crisis of 2008 showed that capitalism has reached its historical limits. Dialectically, all the factors that propelled the world economy upwards have combined to drive the whole system downwards in an endless spiral of economic decline.
In the six or seven years since that collapse began all the governments of the world have been striving to restore the old economic equilibrium. But all the attempts to restore the economic equilibrium have only served to destroy the social and political equilibrium. Moreover, all these efforts have failed to restore anything resembling an economic equilibrium. And now the world economy is teetering on the brink of a new and even more catastrophic fall.
This represents a sharp break in the situation, and it is inevitably accompanied by sharp changes in consciousness. Everywhere: from Turkey to Brazil, from Greece to Spain, from Scotland to Ireland, the masses are looking for a way out of the crisis. The old ideas, parties and politicians are being put to the test and discarded, as a man discards a dirty shirt and looks for a new one. There is a seething current of discontent, of indignation and of fury that gives rise to a search for a radical solution to the crisis.
The new generation is completely free from the prejudices, pessimism and poisonous scepticism that colours the outlook of the older layers who see only defeats and difficulties and have lost the will to fight. The youth is naturally revolutionary and is completely open to the ideas of revolutionary Marxism. It is on this layer that Lenin based himself when he proclaimed: “He who has the youth has the future!”
Today the International Marxist Tendency occupies the same ideological ground that was occupied one hundred years ago by the Zimmerwald Left. We are proud to adopt Lenin’s banner as our own. We pledge ourselves to defend the ideas, programme and principles of Bolshevism as the only ideas that can lead humanity out of the terrible crisis into which capitalism has plunged it.
Like Lenin we will turn our backs on the cowards and sceptics who wish to abandon the ideas of Marxism, to water down our revolutionary programme in order to please the unity-mongers. Like Lenin we are implacable and unyielding on all questions of principle, but flexible on all questions of tactics. We call on all workers and youth who are looking for the revolutionary road to join the IMT and help us build the vehicle that is absolutely necessary to change society and bring about the socialist transformation of the world.
Note: A second conference was called in Kienthal from April 24 to 30, 1916, which was attended by Lenin, Zinoviev and Inessa Armand. It represented a step forward compared with the Zimmerwald Conferences insofar as it not only condemned bourgeois governments, parties and press but also criticized the social patriots and bourgeois pacifists and stated categorically that the only way wars would end was if the working class took power and abolished private property. The final statement says: “The struggle for lasting peace can, therefore, be only a struggle for the realization of socialism” (emphasis in the original).
The good citizens of Zimmerwald did everything possible to blot out the memory of the event. In 1962, memorial sites and plaques of any kind were banned. To sabotage the efforts of left-wingers and revolutionaries to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the conference, the anti-communists even organised a counter-conference in 1965. In 1971 they went one step further and demolished the guest house where Lenin had stayed. The ban was only lifted in the 1970s.